Don’t Shoot the Messenger

A dying hard drive is the worst thing that a technician has to deal with, partially because the process is unpredictable, but also because most people don’t have a recent backup. The drive may die quickly or slowly, partially or completely, and it may even die in the technician’s hands … then that technician has the difficult task of explaining to their client why “it is running slowly” turned into “your data is lost”.

Everything in your computer gets stored on a hard drive. Even if you predominantly use cloud storage, your data is still on a hard drive somewhere. That hard drive may be a delicate spinning disk (a traditional hard drive), or it may have no moving parts (a solid state hard drive, or SSD). Many files on your hard drive are easily replaceable, like your operating system and programs; however, unless you have a backup, your data is not easily replaceable.

Diagnosing a dying hard drive can be difficult. Hard drives read and write millions of bits of data every minute, so they’re used to correcting the odd glitch. They do this by using error-correcting algorithms. The result is a medium that works very dependably … slowing down, sometimes imperceptibly, to compensate for a glitch in the process.

Once the technician finds enough clues to decide that the hard drive is dying, it is still not clear how dead it is, or how quickly it is dying. For spinning hard drives, this life may be extended by a few minutes by cooling the hard drive or tipping it at the correct angle, but the best approach to slowing its death is to not use it … but then, that is counterproductive to saving the data on it!

Backing up a dying hard drive has two general approaches: attempt to “clone” the whole drive, or just grab the data. Obviously, if things are going downhill quickly, the latter makes the most sense, but if it looks like there is time, it is nice to clone the whole drive to another drive so the operating system and programs don’t need to be reloaded (assuming the computer will be reused). It should also be pointed out that recovering data from a dying hard drive can take an incredibly long time … sometimes weeks.

If all else fails, and there is no backup of the critical data, there is still the option of using a data recovery service. But know that prices for these “clean room” services start at $500, and they are hit-and-miss.

Morals of the story:

  1. Back up your data regularly
  2. Diagnose small problems before they become big problems
  3. Back up your data regularly
  4. Don’t shoot the messenger when your hard drive dies.